Posted by: daedala | May 31, 2011

the goddess bites

non-definitive reflections on Chauvet Cave

The Chauvet Venus

Chauvet Cave, hidden in limestone cliffs near Pont d’Arc, the dramatic natural bridge spanning the Ardèche river in southern France, contains a wealth of neolithic cave drawings that is overwhelming in density, humbling in sophistication, and awe-inspiring in sheer beauty. The drawings are made of charcoal, and in some cases, earth colors like ochre. The oldest are carbon-dated to 32,000 years before the present. One reviewer of a book on the drawings could not resist the snarky jab at Bible-literalist Christians, that this is 26,000 years before the date Bishop James Ussher calculated that God created the earth. The cave was sealed by rockslide in a long-forgotten geologic incident, 28,000 years ago, long, long, very long before historical creation-daters who’ve since gone over the Styx – Hindu, Egyptian, Chinese, Mayan among them – were born.

Among all the animals depicted: aurochs, bison, mammoth, lovely horses, rhinoceros, lions, and more, there is only one human figure. It is on a massive tooth-like formation pendent from the cave ceiling – drawings are tucked into myriad puzzling spots and flow over and around curves and bulges in the cave walls, virtually none are made on an uncurved surface. The cave’s small cadre of scientists and guardians are well-familiar with it, but we have not really seen it before now, in Werner Herzog’s extraordinary, 3-D documentary, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” for which a camera was hung on a pole, above a strictly protected portion of cave floor, to see the side of the formation usually hidden even from the very few permitted inside.

Isolated sketch of Chauvet Venus

The identification of the figure is tricky. Like so many of the animal figures, the supposed human one is overlapped with another figure or figures, notably the recognizable head and back of a bull. The human figure is partial, presumably seen from the front: really only two oddly curving legs bent at the knee, and an exaggerated triangle of Venus between the legs, with the distinct labial cleft characteristic of so many neolithic statuettes. Some closest to the cave and its images are quick to point out the connections between woman and bull so familiar from mythology: Pasiphae mating with the sacrificial bull of Poseidon to produce the bull-headed Minotaur, Zeus in the form of a bull carrying off the maiden who will give her name to Europa, the continent which is home to this miraculous art. As old as we thought it was, the story is perhaps far older. We also assume that, among the careful and thorough study of the drawings made since the cave was discovered in 1991, it can be demonstrated that no similar image exists, that none of the animals represented look at all like these parts. But is it even a human sketch? Is it indeed the Goddess?

Venus of Willendorf

A look at any of the neolithic ‘goddesses’ gives the identification a strong justification. The figures have very large breasts, round bellies, and the prominent pubic V with a cleft clearly representing female sex. They could represent pregnancy. Some even have sketchy arms with hands resting over their swollen breasts or bellies, a gesture as touching as when one sees a pregnant woman anywhere, resting her hands on her belly. How human that gesture is! The breasts are very large and pendulous. Given the deepest nature of the cosmos and the planet we occupy, these images could hardly refer to anything more fundamental than fertility, the absolute power of life. And, in association with drawings and figures of animals, so beautifully rendered, possibly an acknowledgement, perhaps, just perhaps, even a prayer, a meditation, on the pulsing, bloody, milky, fleshy, even incestuous, link between human and animal life. (Take that, you fundamentalists!)

I am old enough that the first inklings of the presence of the Goddess came to me at the time a movement was fomenting among some feminists. The Chalice and the Blade had just been published, and its author, Riane Eisler, described a peaceable, “partnership” model that existed in neolithic societies, nurtured and guided by feminine power, evidenced by archaeological remains in the earliest discovered settlements, cities and temples, I was electrified. It changed definitively the way I saw the world. Eisler’s passionate, forceful book also directed the as-yet unfocused feminist rage I felt toward the “dominator” model of the Bronze Age Kurgan horse invaders, who shattered the matriarchal peace forever and imposed the dire, death-worshipping patriarchy we’ve lived under ever since.

Eisler’s book was based on the work of Marija Gimbutas, an archaeologist born in Lithuania who opened new sites in Eastern Europe and used her findings to reinterpret previously uncovered material. I read Gimbutas’ work hungrily, grateful for a female interpreter who cast new light in a field dominated by males. Though I hopefully followed the prodigiously documented arguments she made for an “Old Europe” that worshipped the Goddess, many of the images she used, very often of artifacts she herself uncovered by digging, never added up to the same sum for me. As much as I wanted to be, I did not find myself completely persuaded. More recently, Gimbutas’ interpretive leaps have been seriously queried by other scientists, not always male.

Gravettian Venus

Still, I loved the sheer number of female figures that had lain in the earth for millennia; there are no doubt many more waiting to be uncovered. What I did not love was that these Goddesses had no heads, or if they did, no faces. Many are so obese that I cannot imagine a female living in the late Ice Age could look like that without being kept confined in a cave and force-fed bonbons for a lifetime. And, would women, no matter how matriarchal, never appreciatively model the image of a male love partner? As for the fundamental power of the fecund female, all animal life closest to us emerges from the same door. Still, people living so close to the wild would never fail to notice that fertility in most animals, and certainly in mammals like the beautiful lions and bison, is a two-way engagement, and that unfucked females do not bear. Ancient people figured out the precession of the moon. They were hardly unobservant, nor, as the drawings so beautifully attest, stupid. That many ancient female deities and powers are associated with bulls, or snakes, makes perfect sense to me. Just yesterday I saw a rattlesnake rising alongside a boulder, slowly, deliberately, and gracefully seeking prey in a cleft of rock. It was a perfect image of phallus, the beautiful word for an erect penis.

Chauvet Horses

Breathtakingly powerful goddesses exist in many ancient mythologies. Yet even in many of the places in which the goddesses are still worshipped, I see no evidence that living, breathing women and their children were also revered, or treated at best with anything other than casual brutality. Instead, they have far too often been raped, abused, murdered. A father cannot know a child is his the way a mother indisputably knows what child is hers. The happiest see their own faces in the child, especially if it lives long enough. But, males of many species kill their rivals’ offspring. A father never really knows if a child carries his own selfish genes or not. A shockingly high number of deaths of women in India is fiery; houses set afire, acid thrown. A study in Maryland within the past decade found that the greatest cause of the deaths of pregnant women in the U.S., next to organic complications of pregnancy that still persist in an age of social and medical advancement, however politically compromised, is homicide. To me, the ancient female images have more than a whiff of the revolting taint of snuff pornography. If the urge to perpetuate one’s own genetic package drives so much of nature, when could a Goddess — a female image of life — have ever subdued the rampant river-god in the blood of the human species?

Why, when surrounded by such lovingly drawn portrait heads, in which one can read the individual traits of a horse, or a male and female lion hunting together, and the bull so nearby, would the one human figure amid the riches of Chauvet, a female, lack a head?

I do not believe in the patriarchs’ vicious sky God (nor have I ever forgiven his benighted, hateful believers – especially the females), but I am not a convert of the Goddess.

I didn’t quite get it then, that, like so many of my contemporaries, I was searching for the feminine face of god. I still am. I want godhead in my image, not a man’s; not a bursting, headless blowup doll, not a harridan or witch, not a sorrowful, passive receptacle. The one goddess who comes closest is Guanyin. But, I do not even begin to truly understand compassion. I also realize, only of late, that my searching is clouded by the mythologies of the culture in which I was raised, Western positivism, American Puritanism. And, yes, the godforsaken patriarchy. My search has always been obscured by the shadow of Plymouth Rock. I expect things of my goddess: kickass power, creative intelligence, deep wisdom, just like the best women I know. She would prevent the murder of innocents, or at least, give us a clue as to why. Without even knowing it, I have expected her to be as literal as the Puritan’s god. No wonder I haven’t found her yet.

Mama Grizzly

Perhaps I can take heart from a new generation of feminists, who take the sacred image of the cave bear seriously, projecting a renewed power and vitality, and who are both spiritual and commonsense practical. They call themselves “Mama Grizzlies.”

Or, maybe not.

So where is my Goddess? If she is in my image, what aspect of it? If I am not to literalize her, how can I see her? I’m not sure I ever will. But when I look at the animals of Chauvet, I feel wonder and awe rising. The animals hunt, they battle, they run. They are living. Many are animals the people of the Ardèche river valley would have hunted and killed. They would be eaten by the hunters and their community. Some, like the lions, might kill the hunters. The technical skill of the artists — and I am a skilled enough artist in my own right to appreciate it fully — is greater than my own at rendering the personality, spirit and being of an animal, though I am often inspired to try. I feel the same wonder when I see wild animals on the desert trail near my home: gila monster, deer, peccary. And I feel dread. One does not touch the gila monster; the javelinas are large, dangerously short-sighted and sharp-tusked, and anger easily when their young are running with the band. One does well to admire the rattlesnake from a safe distance and you never want to step on one.

We live in what the Tibetan Buddhists call meat bodies. Life carries no guarantees, whatsoever. But, it is magnificent. I am female, and want to project my feelings of awe toward a female way of seeing the world. I would expect males to look toward a male. And both to take delight in the other.

Perhaps Eros is both my god and goddess. A much earlier, primeval Eros than the chubby cherub with the bow was darker, more shadowy, one of the protogenoi, or firstborn of the cosmos, who emerged out of Chaos long before the appearance of Aphrodite, who was later reckoned his mother. Among the protogenoi, gender seems to matter less; their issue, if any, are not necessarily created through coitus. The scant textual mentions are vague. Sappho called Eros the “Limb Loosener.” She may have been referring to the shuddering, petite morte of orgasm. Eros also surely appears in the typhonic imperatives of childbirth; the diminishment and disappearence of boundaries between self and other in all unforeseen moments of deep connection, as when one comes eye to eye with a wild animal; and the disentanglement of spark from clay in death.

Will I ever find my Goddess? Would I even know if I did? At this point, I very much doubt it. The best I can do, like my ancient brothers and sisters at humanity’s dawn, is to look, make art, live, love, and die.

For a sample critique of the Chauvet Venus hypothesis:

I obtained my doctorate at Pacifica Graduate Institute, which houses the Opus Archives, the repository of Maria Gimbutas’ library, as well as that of Joseph Campbell; eventually it will house that of James Hillman, the most prominent post-Jungian depth psychologist, and of my own academic advisor, Christine Downing, a prominent religious scholar and writer-participant in the birth of the goddess movement of the 70s and 80s.

Posted by: daedala | June 14, 2010

like my life depended on it

Xyante and I are in a fearful time of transition, waiting for our house to sell before we can move on to our next home. After going through so many underworld transits in the last ten years, there is something different about this one. Mythically, there is something about Limbo that is worse than Hell.

For ten years, we’ve invested our identity in our home near the ocean. That’s not the problem, we’ve moved on in intention to the next, which will be in the Sonoran desert. We put a powerful effort into the sweat equity, we’ve done ceremony to thank the house and bless it for the next people who will live in it, and moved out. But not on. No one can quite understand why the house, in such an amazing location, has not sold yet. That’s another, bigger story, in a chain of stories in this huge time of transition for so many. Meanwhile, for us, everything is on hold, and we feel powerless. The waiting is hideous. There is plenty of time for every fearful fantasy of what could go badly wrong to wrench our guts. Even after all we’ve been through and not merely survived but found a way to flourish afterward, the fear is here. What, oh what is this all about?

We’re lucky, wonderful, generous friends have gifted us the use of an art studio where we can live in another beautiful town down the coast. Funny, though we’ve been given such a gift, it’s hard to use it without being distracted and drained by doubt and fear. But since I can’t think of anything else to do, I’ve been making art as if my life depended on it.

I’ve made a series of paintings, 10 in the last six or eight weeks. I’ve been going as fast as I can. These paintings incorporate collage — glued-on images — so I don’t have to slow down much to render. I can just paint and slap things on, paint some more and move on to the next. I’m trying to keep moving, not to get caught in judgment on the work, just doing it. Sometimes a pause comes, of a day or days, when I have to let the art-energy well up again. At the same time, I can’t let it be stalled entirely. So, I simply start something, waiting for some kind of inspiration I can follow.

Now, I have enough paintings stacked up (literally – they are on paper and piled on the studio table) that I can see some connections. I embarked on these hoping they would speak to me, and they have, a bit. Still, I can feel judgment creeping in. Pretty. Facile. Lightweight. All the deadly words.

The last few days have been building into one of those fear-storms, where I feel myself getting wound increasingly tightly, air squeezing out. Not as dramatic as a panic-attack, thankfully. But bad, seeing every way we can fail and all the most dire possible consequences, playing out endlessly in my overworked imagination. So I picked up a painting I had started and tried to work, as I had for the previous few days. I had an image I wanted to use for Hephaistos. About time my tutor-god made an appearance. I was musing about our encounters with Hephaistos’s steel, on the dark street in Atlanta, our right hands cut open, Xyante on the operating table exactly two years later. We survived. But what, oh what is this all about, wounded god?

Composition helps (yes, all right, pretty, I know, but I can’t help it. I compose elegantly, all right? So sue me. Want to make something of it? Want to step outside right now and settle it? Huh?)

I wanted two or three faces: Hephaistos, a golden robot girl, one of the artificial forge assistants he created for himself, and Pandora, the first woman, created from clay. I found the images I wanted, but three overwhelmed the composition, too much. So, Hephaistos and Maria, the robot-woman from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Every robot is Hephaistean, a made creature with its own intelligence and archetypal power, an expression of the gods who inspire us to make things on Earth. The two heads went onto a fiery background, like the fire-god’s lava, like forge-fire. I wanted this image dark, to put there my dark feelings and the pain that is visiting. The space between the heads asked for something. I’ve been working with cups, in the Tarot the symbol of emotions, of love. These cups would be forged in Hephaistos’ fire, filled with wounding, surging with blood and molten iron.

Both heads would be golden, Hephaistos’s dark and ominous, Maria’s brighter, the cups suspended between them. Xyante looked at that moment and said how Maria’s face looked like the moon to him. So I made her silvery-white instead, which called for a pale, transparent, shimmering blue around her, which I glazed over the yellow, orange and black to cool the fire. I knifed on white gesso between the cups, to set a ground on which to paint the blood and iron. But then, the painting was suddenly finished. The white streams became a flood of cosmic energy, its meeting place a newborn galaxy.

Only one other painting in this series startled me as much. A painting of Athena. That too started with a field of lava, then burgeoning clouds and warm milky light around the goddess. I tried to make it many other things, but the clouds wanted precedence, and form a pale, golden background that brightly silhouettes Nike, the goddess of Victory, held in the palm of Athena, the goddess of war, strategy, weaving, wisdom, the sister of Hephaistos.

Xyante and I lay in bed just at dawn this morning, talking about our fear. Usually, only one of us is afflicted at any given time. Not so now. We talked about the paintings. Like everything else, each of our work seems somehow to belong to the other as well, and we can sometimes read our joined fate in the art we create. Between us we wove a mythic net, a new story. These two paintings are about creation, about what we will create: literally, a new life on new land. The fires are still bright, the alchemy still in progress. The land of our new life is just being formed, too hot to tread. Soon enough, we will be able to walk on it and start fresh. The gods are with us.

© 2010 daedala. Click to explore larger images.

Posted by: daedala | September 3, 2009

the four Hephs

You’re probably familiar with the Hero’s Journey, the monomyth famously described by Joseph Campbell—“monomyth” meaning that it appears all over the world, in virtually all mythologies. (Some people may even think it’s the only myth.) It’s the story of the journey of the Hero who begins in innocence, ignorant of the Call that awaits him. He leaves home under its irresistible compulsion, faces great obstacles and commits great deeds, most often with the help of unforeseen allies, yet must face the greatest trials alone in the deep black forest, triumphing in the end and returning home wiser.

My friend bluenomada told me one day that she got the insight, which felt almost like a smack upside the head, that “I don’t live the Hero’s Journey. I stay in the forest!” She lives a different kind of myth, one of being alive to the wisdoms of the forest plant and animal powers and using them in her healing practices. Her story is different, a shaman’s journey, that keeps her in the midst of mystery, staying connected and attuned.

I won’t say more about bluenomada’s story, because it belongs to her, but it got me thinking too. Jung asked a great question: “What myth is living me?” He asked himself that question, when, relatively early in his life and career, wild dreams and waking visions nearly overcame him and his tools as a psychoanalyst weren’t enough to rescue him. As an old man, he said that living with that question every day, which he did by making art like a child and observing his own process like a scientist, showed him glimpses of what he came to call the collective unconscious and laid the foundations for the work he did for the rest of his life.

Jung’s story had been on my back burner for years, as I tried to understand what the question meant. Bluenomada’s smack upside the head brought it to the front burner. Then I understood, in a flash, why I was so taken with a special set of myths.

Here’s the myth that has been working me. There are without doubt others that work me, and all of us. But I recognized that a story I love has been playing on my lifestrings. When I pick it up, I can see myself, like in a mirror. Myths, however inscrutable, do work that way. A mythic story can give us glimpses of the inside of the soul’s engine. Myths that don’t speak to us pass out of memory and die. We’ve never heard the dead ones.

So, here is the one that’s been working me. Hephaistos is the Greek god of fire and metalworking, one of the twelve Olympians ruled by Zeus. He is a wounded god, as are many of the maker-gods in myths from all over the world. I see him as a god of embodiment, representing the mysteries of incarnation in a body of flesh and bone, on a planet, with weather and an atmosphere, and myriad other embodied beings. The ancient Greek hymn to Hephaistos asks for him to make good things for human life, like good houses that protect us from the elements. Hephaistos also makes things of beauty that are game-changers. When they are used, fates are altered, like the gorgeous armor used at Troy that ensured the fame of Achilles (ever read the Iliad?) or the fabulous belt that Aphrodite lent to Hera to seduce Zeus, successfully diverting his attention, for the moment, away from a plot Hera hatched at Troy.

You can read about Hephaistos on any number of internet myth sites. Here are four themes that appeared whole-cloth to me, that come from his story. I call them “The Four Hephs.” They are still only snippets—there is so much more to the story, but the general shape of the whole story is here. (Unlike the first three, the last of the four Hephs you may not readily see among the versions of Heph’s myth. It comes from my dissertation research, and I am working on a book about them. This story has been working me for quite a while!)

I have received insights about my life and how I live it from thinking about The Four Hephs. I invite you to do the same. These bits of myth yield questions that create more stories—your stories. The stories that come from the Hephs and the questions they seem to ask are different for everyone.

I’ll tell you a little about what each of these questions has given me. They have each yielded much longer, more complex, richer stories, far too much to share here (though I may blog on them in the future). I work with them sometimes using a journal, or talking with a friend and sharing stories. And, I lead a series of workshops called “Fanning the Flames.” The flames we fan are from the unique spark that each of us carries, and that needs to get oxygen to burn in the world.

The First Heph is “Finding the Jewel in the Wound.” Hephaistos is born club-footed, a disappointment to his mother, Hera, who demanded of Grandmother Gaia a strong boy child who would grow up to punish Zeus for his offenses to Hera. Furious, she throws the infant from Olympus. He falls for days and lands in the sea. We all have wounds, whether physical or psychic, often incurred in childhood. These wounds contribute to our sense of self. People who have been wounded or experienced illness or other physical conditions, even grievously, very often say that they have received gifts of insight that they would not have otherwise attained and might not trade. 

The questions this Heph have suggested to me are: What is a wound in your life that contains for you a jewel, of identity, awareness, or purpose. What is your jewel? Reflecting on this question led me down a long trail of self-story. There were breadcrumbs leading back to childhood. But thinking about the wounds as jewels that, however painfully, formed my identity, gives me a greater sense of power. I don’t think I would have done a lot of what I have done in my life without there having been some benefits from the wounds. Because I had to take care of myself, they had the chief effect of making me independent, almost fearless. One of the jewels I received from being wounded, I believe, is self-confidence.

The Second Heph is “In the Undersea Cavern.” Infant Hephaistos is rescued by two sea nymphs, Thetis and Eurynome, daughters of the Sea and goddesses of older lineage than the Olympians, and thus possessing knowledge the Olympians do not. They are shapeshifters and possessors of Metis, intuitive intelligence (named for their sister nymph, Metis, mother of Athena, whom Zeus swallows, subsequently giving “birth” to Athena though his head—midwifed by a hammer blow from Hephaistos). Thetis and Eurynome hide and protect Hephaistos, adopting him as their foster child. They arrange for him to be tutored in the mysteries of metalworking (a techne comparably fateful, mysterious, and potent in the ancient world as space technology, biotechnology or digital technology today). His talent thrives and he lives in the undersea nymphs’ cave, happily creating objects of great beauty, to his foster mothers’ delight.

The questions I get from this part of Heph’s story are: What/who is a place or people in whose embrace you learned something of importance about the unique gifts you carry? Who are those people; where and how were you fostered in recognizing your gifts, and what are they? I was gifted with two extraordinary teachers whose independence and humility invited me to step forward as a person in my own right. There have been many more teachers in my life, and there continue to be. Each one of them gave me a different gift, a different mirror for seeing my own talents. I remember all of them with gratitude. And, if I do not make good on my own gifts, I am dishonoring the gifts they have given me. 

The Third Heph is “Returning to Olympos.” At length, Zeus hears of the prodigious making talent of Hephaistos and demands his return to Olympos. Hephaistos at first refuses, but shows his tricky side by sending a gift throne to his mother Hera. Homer says that Hera loves the trappings of power, so she sits in the throne, which imprisons her, hanging her upside down on the ceiling. The gods, lacking craft, cannot rescue her. When Hephaistos returns to Olympus, he regains his seat at the exclusive table of 12 gods. He is renowned as a peacemaker, and as a worker. He is also a civilizer: the maker of symbolic objects that represent power, such as Zeus’s thunderbolts, the scepter of Agammemnon, the armor of Achilles—and the magically beautiful girdle of Aphrodite—all objects of power that affect the destinies of people and nations. Objects, too, of beauty—beauty that is powerful enough to be a game-changer.

The questions that come from this Heph are: In what ways do you assent to or defer taking your rightful place at the table of power?  What is the nature of your personal power? What is unique about your power? How do you exert it, and what is your relationship to others who carry power? This is probably the biggest Heph for me in my life at this stage. It’s a challenge to stand fully and nakedly in my own power. I sometimes fear I will blow other people away. I want to learn to raise my voice and live out loud, loudly enough for people to clearly hear me. At the same time, I want to build my confidence that I can modulate my voice, raising it just enough, not too much. When I think about the power of others, I know that collaboration is what I need in the coming phase of my life, to be able to extend my reach and offer my gifts to the world. That will mean being able to blend my gifts with those of others, to both speak with appropriate persuasion and forcefulness when I need to, and to listen with full and open attention. 

The Fourth Heph is “Stepping into the Mystery.” What is little known about Hephaistos, but can be pieced together from ancient sources, is that Hephaistos was the patron of certain mystery cults in Greece; not the most famous, the Elusinian, which lasted for a thousand years; but of cults at Samos and other places, and often in association with Dionysos, that thrived on seafaring. The sea is pathless, and sailors might, or might not, return, even if they have a good knowledge of the stars and other technologies to guide them. Surfers today say that, “When you enter the ocean, you enter the food chain.” And, the recent Air France crash off the coast of Brazil reaffirms that the pathless, metistic nature of the ocean is still filled with fateful mystery for humanity. Seafarers, and all of humanity who are embodied, must at length come to terms with our deepest fears, and ultimately, our own mortality. Hephaistos is the god of forge-fire, volcanic fire—and sacrificial fire. Heraclitus said: “All life is fire.”

The questions that arise from the Fourth Heph involve: Coming to terms with incarnation through friending your deepest fears and dreams. We are mortal, and face the mysteries of hunger, uncertainty, aging and death. What must we release in order to achieve personal peace of mind? How may we acknowledge our deepest fears with awe and respect, and live and die with peace and dignity? Ah, the big one!

In my dissertation research, I discovered that Hephaistos was the patron of mystery cults. The aim of ancient mystery cults was for the celebrant to come into relationship with the mysteries of the signal aspects of physical embodiment: maturation and sex, community unity, individuation, and vulnerability to illness, aging, and death.

The myths of the maker gods speak to us about the mysteries of incarnation on Earth. The maker gods usually stand in some kind of subordinate relationship to the creator god/desses, who often recede or absent themselves, while the maker gods continue to stand in relationship to humanity, making good things for life. They often complete the creation of humans begun by the creator god/desses, and it is through the encounter with the maker gods that we achieve individual and community identity and instrumentality.

Incarnation is a great mystery, and we need to come into profound relationship with it in order to attune with the huge shifts that are occurring now; with the planet, human economy, questions of national and global identity, and hugely rapid technological advance. Hephaistos is a maker god, so is Yoruban Ogun, Egypgtian Ptah, Ugaritic (Palestinian) Kothar-wa-Khasis, Vedic Bramanaspati and others from all over. They are usually imaged as masculine, but are intimately intertwined with strong feminine powers, from whom they learn the mysteries of Earth. They are all of the oldest divine lineages, older than dirt, and are known as the Wise Ones.

Oh, Hephaistos, make me wise!

 © 2009 Cheryl De Ciantis, Ph.D. aka Daedala, aka Hephaistos Semyorka in Second Life

Posted by: daedala | August 23, 2009

poisonous beauty

In 1937, Alexander Calder created a mercury fountain. A single, standing pipe releases a narrow stream of liquid mercury into a series of curving aluminum runnels. The liquid seems instantly to expand. It quivers along, and is momentarily dammed by slots that further animate the flow of the stream of quicksilver. In the middle of its descent, the mercury swirls in a petal-shaped basin before resuming its gravity-impelled flow. As it falls, splintering and shivering, into a circular pool, the stream strikes a mobile paddle with a tall thin rod. Its movement perturbs another thin rod, suspended above the whole elegant contraption, with a pendant red iron bullseye at one end, whose sway causes an iron pendant at the other end, spelling out the letters A L A M A D É N, to gently flutter. The work is typical of Calder, modest in scale, almost childlike in its simplicity. It is at once straightforward and transparent, and witchily brilliant, illuminated with sheer, unmatched intelligence. It fascinates.

The more so now, since mercury is handled with a sense of respect and awe magnitudes greater than when I was a child and my father showed us mercury from his dental lab. He encouraged us to play with it, watching with delight as we let it ball and flutter, cupping magic in our bare hands. It was only later, from pictures in our Life magazine that we learned what industry, abetted by governments, at first ignored, and later tried to suppress, that mercury in our environment, in the case of the Japanese fisher-children of Minamata, born neurologically impaired and malformed, has a horrible power. [See this video about recent research at the University of Calgary that demonstrates the destructive neurochemical processes that occur in the presence of mercury molecules]. For over thirty years, toxic mercury, a waste product of industrial processes, flowed with the wastewater from a chemical plant into Minamata Bay, where it bioaccumulated in the shellfish and fish eaten by the people living around the bay and the Shiranui Sea. Mercury is one of the most toxic substances on the planet. Even the simple handling of mercury from improperly disposed mercury thermometers and fluorescent light bulbs can cause the skin to turn red, and peel in layers. Calder’s fountain, inside the entry of the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona, once openly approachable, is shielded by a glass shell.

Calder made his fountain as a gesture of solidarity with the Spanish mercury miners at Almadén, whose insurrection was suppressed by Franco’s forces in 1934. When a power vacuum was created by the economic collapse of the late 1920s, and the subsequent fall of the military dictator Primo de Rivera and abdication of the King, the Spanish Republic was formed. By the early thirties, the Republican government proved to be unable to ameliorate worsening economic conditions, driving workers and the rural poor to violence that threatened the vestiges of stability of the urban middle classes. Ultimately, the Republican government responded to the unrest as harshly as previous dictatorships and monarchies. Rightists were gaining power, and the entry into Parliament, in 1933, of the Church-backed political organization, the CEDA (Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas) catalyzed a Socialist call for insurrection:

“Confronted with threatened aggression by the reactionaries, and a government incapable of Republican defense, the Left had no choice but to take the defense of the Republic into its hands, making known to the government and the country that it would not tolerate a Monarchist or Fascist coup d’etat cloaked in a fictitious parliamentary proceeding…if power were handed to the right, the Socialist Party would start a revolution…“ [the leading Socialist, J. Alvarez del Vayo, describing the call for insurrection published in January, 1934].

With the call ¡a la calle! (“into the street!”), the mercury miners stormed and occupied the barracks of the Guardia Civil, and took over the administration of local affairs. The revolt lasted two weeks, until the arrival of troops commanded by Generalissimo Franco, fresh from counter-insurgency warfare in colonial Morocco. Severe repression followed, and within two more years, Spain fell into civil war [].

Since the sixteenth century, mercury had been used in the extraction of gold and silver from ores, and slave, and, later, convict labor was used at Almadén to obtain the quantities needed to refine ores plundered from the Americas. Some say that there is more mercury at Almadén than anywhere else in the world. The Alamadén mines are ancient. The Romans mined cinnabar there, the mineral from which mercury is extracted. They used it to create beautiful vermilion (red) pigment. The name Almadén derives from the Arabic word meaning “mine,” The Moors used mercury for medicines and in alchemy. The element Mercury is named for the fleet-footed Roman messenger god. The Romans gave this name to the slivery-bright planet closest to the Sun, to denote its  swift rotation. Alchemists associated mercury with the mythical qualities of that planet and called mercury quicksilver. An eighth-century Arabic alchemical text stated that mercury and sulfur were the two principle “qualities” from which all matter is formed. Alchemically shifting the balance of these two qualities would result in “curing” base metals of their impurities, transforming them into the noble metals silver or gold, and likewise cure the base condition of illness, transforming it into health [Alchemy in Europe and the Middle East].

In 936, Caliph Abd ar-Rahman the Third ordered the construction of a vast palace and administrative complex, seven kilometers northwest of Córdoba. With its shining, white buildings arrayed over three ascending terraces built into the hillside at the base of the Sierra Morena, with the Caliph’s palace at the city’s summit, it presented a commanding view from miles distant. Medinat al-Zahra was to be a new city, created from the ground up, the only such project known in Western Europe, and it was meant to dazzle the visitor with its wealth and brilliance. Its name honored the Prophet Mohammad’s daughter, Fatima, the wife of Ali and spiritual mother of all Shi’a imams, and herself revered as a scholar given the title al-Zahra, “the shining,” “the brilliant.”

Brilliant, and provocative, the dazzling city was an expression of the ambitions of the Caliph, who proclaimed himself heir of the Umayyad dynasty, the true Prince of Believers, and declared al-Andaluz, Moorish Spain, utterly independent of the powerful, rival Fatimid Shi’a dynasty of North Africa. Abd ar-Rahman’s son, Al-Hakam the Second, enjoyed a stable reign, but at his death, his young son, Hisham the Second, was in effect deposed, virtually imprisoned in the palace, by Al-Hakam’s vizier, Ibn Abi Amir, known as al-Mansur, “the Victor,” who greatly expanded the power and prosperity of the Umayyid Caliphate. When the vizier’s son acceded to power, he made the strategic error of forcing Hisham to appoint him as legitimate successor. This act of overt disrespect plunged the Caliphate into civil war. Medinat al-Zahra was sacked and burned to the ground. It had dazzled for less than a century. It disappeared and its grandeur fell out of memory for a thousand years.

At its height, Medinat al-Zahra stretched over two kilometers. Ten thousand workers were employed in its building, over twenty-five years, and it supported 20,000 inhabitants. It contained a zoo, an aviary, four fish ponds (where 12,000 loaves of bread were daily fed to the fish), 300 baths and 400 houses, together with weapons factories and barracks.

Two fantastic ministerial chambers (described in a chronicle of the time which praises the beauties of the city as a stimulant to virtue by reflecting the pleasures to be enjoyed by the faithful in paradise), express the significance of light and brilliance to the alchemical imagination of mystical Islam. One contained pure crystals, creating evanescent rainbows when touched by the sun. The other, Kasr-al-Kholaifa, the Hall of the Caliphs, was built of marble and gold, ivory, ebony and precious stones, a fit setting for its central feature, a massive fountain filled with liquid mercury from the mines of Almadén. Its quicksilver could be set in motion at pleasure, with the brush of a hand. And, at night, the faintest moonbeams were reflected a thousand fold in its quivering surface.

Ruinas de Medina Azahara by Nicolás Pérez Rodriguez

Ruinas de Medina Azahara by Nicolás Pérez Rodriguez

Posted by: daedala | August 23, 2009

flight of the crooked bird

Almost three years ago, the night became mythic for Xyante and me when a man rushed at us out of the darkness on a deserted midnight street corner shouting he had a knife. We were lucky. We both escaped with slash wounds, X on his face and both of us in our hands, all on the right side. We are both right-handed artists and have had much time to ponder the message, over and above ‘stay away from those places at night’ — although when fate looks for someone, it finds them wherever they are.

I have written about this night in another blog [“Night Turns Mythic”], but we have reasons to continue to work this story. In fact, we both believe the story is still working us. It’s our habit to look for meaning in everything, so of course it is easy to find, but this story keeps presenting itself to us in arresting ways. We are very healthy people, yet Xyante was caught up in a perfect storm of conditions that led to a dangerous staph infection inside the mantle of his spinal cord–a structure called the ‘arachnoid’ because it is like a spider web of nerve fibers. He is still in the midst of a slow and painful recovery. Again, we were lucky, because he survived. The doctors still tell us how close he came to dying. We soon noticed that the date on the emergency room bill is two years to the day from the date on our ambulance and emergency room bill the memorable night we were attacked. When we told people, it got the attention even of the doctors in the hospital. “That’s really weird!”

We use the word weird a lot, but although I remembered it came from the Old English wyrd, and had to do with what were called cunning men and women, people of wisdom, I had forgotten until I looked it up just this moment that it is still defined as having to do with fate or destiny. There is some expression of fate or destiny for us in this story of one-sided woundings. The damage to Xyante’s spinal nerves is symptomized on the right side of his body. That’s weird.

When I went to myth-school, a particular mythic story found me. I didn’t go looking for it. Or, I should say, him, Hephaistos, the Greek blacksmith god, artist god, and also the god of fire and sacrifice. I was inspired to work with this mythic figure when my professor dramatically imitated his crooked gait. The only wounded Olympian god! I knew then and there he would be the subject of my dissertation. When I told Xyante, he said “Be careful who you bring home!” X understands archetypal psychology very deeply and he was joking with me, but there was a germ of seriousness in what he said. Be careful when you choose to bring home the god of fire, and a wounded god at that.

I thought I was ready for the fire, which is also the fire of creativity, and is the inner fire of the artist whose art is a lifeway that amounts to a spiritual path. It is a fire that burns like the heat of Etna, the volcano that the ancients believed housed Hephaistos’ forge, where he created beautiful and fateful objects–even the first woman, Pandora.

I learned many things by deeply studying Hephaistos’ myth. One thing I learned was that although I love the idea of the mythic shadow, an idea we associate with Jung, that every daylight quality has its underworld counterweight–and it is the shadow territory that holds the greatest spiritual riches, like the ores and crystals that the ancients compared to foetuses growing in the womb of Earth and whose fire we all covet for its incomprable weird beauty.

I loved Hephaistos’ ambivalent relation to the imperious power of the king-god Zeus, for it is Hephaistos, the only maker-god, who supplies the significant regalia of power to Zeus and other gods and mortals: Zeus’s thunderbolts, his sceptre, the weapons and armor of Achilles, the half-divine hero of Troy. Yet Hephaistos does not participate directly in the control of worldly affairs the other gods take sides and quarrel over. Instead, he is sometimes the peacemaker between them when the quarrels erupt into threats of violence. Mortals prayed to Hephaistos to make good things for human life, like warm houses and hearths and proper tools. When Zeus commanded him to chain Prometheus to the rock for giving mortals the forbidden gift of fire–fire from Hephaistos’ own forge–he complied under protest, criticizing Zeus’s lust for power. Not reliably in one camp or the other, Hephaistos was called amphigueeis, “ambidextrous”, meaning he is two-sided, complex. It also means he is able to access both brain hemispheres. Chew on that!

I reveled in his amiguity, but I realized over time that I had soft-pedaled on Hephaistos’ wounding. Yes, yes, the wounding is significant, and he shares this condition with other maker gods like Egyptian Ptah and Nordic one-eyed Odin, the god of wisdom, magic and poetry (poetry is the province of blacksmith gods; in many mythologies poetic meter originates in the the rhythm of the hammer on the anvil). Homer says that Hephaistos suffered ‘mortal pain’ when he was thrown from Mount Olympus, either by Hera or Zeus or both, either because he was physically imperfect, or wounded by the fall, or both. Interestingly, gods and goddesses do not have the power to undo a condition like wounding. They only have the power to transform it. Hephaistos’ wounding is central to his myth. But I had no comparable experience of ‘mortal pain’ with which to imagine his condition. Not so much as a broken bone.

Xyante and I, together with our myth-buddy, Bluenomada, have been musing over the idea that wounds are jewels. We have all received recent, traumatic physical woundings. In Jungian psychology, the experience of wounding, and this includes the trauma of birth, is an opportunity for a meeting between the ego and the unconscious that results in the transformation, to use Sam Keen’s words, of an unconsicous myth into conscious autobiography, as we work and worry the wound, both unconsciously and consciously, in the same way as the tongue returns to worry a painful tooth. This visiting and revisiting feeds a story that may come to have great power in our lives, especially if we don’t forget it. The intensity of bodily pain is not revisited on us in memory. But story stays, if we can succeed in co-creating a it out of what the unconscious casts up, like a shovelful of earth dug from the mother-lode of gold.

The process begins there, just as the blacksmith’s art begins in refining the raw ore. A nugget came up for me when I recognized a poetic connection between my and Xyante’s being knifed and the job of one of Hephaistos’s brother gods, Ogun, the West African and Caribbean diaspora god of metal. Ogun is asked for protection from wounding with metal. Sacred wounding, ritual scarification, is also the realm of Ogun, and in many ancient and surviving cultures the scar is a clan marking that allows an indvidual to be recognized as one’s own. Ogun and other maker gods including Hephaistos are responsible for completing the creator gods’ task of making humans by giving them features — markings that denote our membership in the human clan, and whereby we gain identity. A wounding, then, is a marking. It makes me recognizable to myself and others. And it carries a story. Unmarked by either physical or psychic wounds, one has little to say! Experience, and particularly the more dramatic and traumatic kind, if we survive, makes us more uniquely ourselves.

When I was cut by the man in the mythic darkness, in a city with a mythic name, Atlanta (after Alalanta of the golden apples) I had to undergo more cutting. The knife had severed a tendon in my middle finger. The surgeon reattached it with another knife and a needle (needles are also sacred to Ogun and symbolizes the ability to heal ourselves by closing up wounds, as well as the need to be awake and alert to one’s environment, symbolized by the pricking). My beautiful hand was now marred by a crook in the middle finger — a crooked bird! It took me a while to love it again. But I do (and the crooked bird is reserved for flashing on special occasions at deserving miscreants). I love that another name for my tutelary god, Hephaistos, is “the crooked one.”

Just today, I happened to look at my crooked finger and realized how different my story is. I had realized that Xyante and I owned our stories in the wake of being attacked by an unknown man in the dark. We never blamed this man. Instead, we always felt the event to be the unconscious, the cosmos, the dark powers, whatever you like, bringing us into contact with an implement of awakening. It must have been Xyante’s intuition, when I came home with a wounded god, that a painful wounding was in the offing, and that perhaps, once one has courted someone in the family of wounded gods, an inevitable hierogamy, a mystical marriage, is consummated with a blood oath. To be binding, by the way, oaths used to be administered at the blacksmith’s anvil.

My realization today, looking at my dear little crooked bird, is that she is taking flight in a new trajectory. She is a symbol of the wisdom I gained, the wisdom I need, to dare to help other people to find their jewel in the wound. Without this experience, I would be just another unpolished pebble. Not that the pebble is not beautiful; it is that having somehow been set in the path of my work, wounding has been neceessary to craft a uniquely faceted jewel. I am different. Now, I need to make a mark with my new story.

Posted by: daedala | February 16, 2009

gifts from the labyrinth

marine jasper (

marine jasper (

The photo header on this page is a labyrinth. Kenton and I built it two summers ago in our back garden, which had languished under a cover of rank African grass that had sent its snaky roots far and wide. Kenton had been spading it out yard by yard until we got the idea to build a small labyrinth. Our back yard is not large, but we came up with a design for a simple three-turn Cretan labyrinth that would be walkable and fit gracefully in about a 10′ x 14′ space once the grass was extirpated (thanks, grass, and good bye!)

It helped that we have literally tons of rocks on our property. This was discovered when we started digging toward the foundations to clear the way for the fumigation tenting (a universal ritual here in termite country when houses change hands). Amid the black widow spiders scampering out of their comfortable hidey-holes (in the warm December weather, boots, gloves, long sleeves and jeans were worn) we found a treasure trove. Every spade thrust turned up rocks, beautiful rocks. Some had been sawn and polished on a face, others were rough. Some of our very favorites are the dramatic poppy jasper, and dark round stones, the largest almost two feet across, containing lacy white marine fossils like scallops shells and loopy spiraling snails. But even more exciting were whale vertebrae, dozens of them. We didn’t know then what they were, only that we could clearly see the bone texture and they were very big and very heavy.

garden whale vertebra

Garden whale vertebra. Photo: Kenton Hyatt

We live only a couple of blocks from the ocean, but that didn’t explain where these came from. We meant to research but never had until we found out a few years later, by accident, when I made a telephone call to the local natural history museum to buy advance tickets to a film screening there. I wound up talking to the director, who gasped when I said our street address. “I used to live there!” She told us her daughter, now 18, was born in the house. (That may explain why the house has always felt so friendly and happy, nary a drafty corner or chilly corridor, no monsters in any closet). We asked her about the rocks too, and she told us where her husband, also a naturalist, had collected them from a stream mouth up the coast on private land. He took the finest specimens with him when they moved.

That rocks should literally turn up on our little piece of land surprised nobody, especially those friends who have helped us move over the years and carried boxes of rocks. We are both unabashed rock hounds and have moved with our favorites for decades (even when we moved, rock, stock and barrel, to Europe). Any animist worth her salt loves rocks, and Kenton charmed me with a courting gift of a small piece of Pacific sea jade rubbed on one side with gold. His father was a dentist and Kenton inherited a tiny horde of it that would have been used for casting dental work.


Shell fossil rocks. Photo: Kenton Hyatt

The idea for the labryinth came from a vision quest during which I was permitted to visit spirits of stone. They asked me to honor the rocks we had carried with us for so long, which had lately remained crammed in boxes and cartons, as well as the rocks we kept digging up and had simply piled. The labyrinth seemed a natural way to do this, and the rock spirits affirmed it.

The labyrinth is also a natural for Daedala. I’ve named myself after two deities, or in the case of Daedalus, an ancient culture-hero sometimes regarded as a quasi-god. My Second Life avatar name is Hephaistos, after the Greek blacksmith god. That I’m a female who has named herself after gods rather than goddesss may seem odd, but the maker gods in many mythologies, not just the Greek, have a unique affinity with Mother Earth and the processes of physical creation in both their masculine and feminine aspects. Collectively, they form what Jung called a ‘complex’ known to ancients as ‘the wise ones’ or ‘the clever ones’, the ones who know secret things about physical manifestation and the mysteries of our incarnation in bodies through which we exert almost divine power in the physical plane. Other examples are the Ugaritic god Kothar-wa-Khasis (ancient Palestine), Egyptian Ptah and West African Ogun, who is also actively revered in the diaspora orisa religions, like voudun and santería. (Go ahead and Google!) Daedalus, of course, was the builder of the mythic labyrinth in Crete. Although no structure has ever been identified there that verifies the story of the Minotaur’s mazy prison, the myth has lived for millennia and inspired creations we can see, like those in many of the Gothic cathedrals in Europe, like Chartres.

Kenton Hyatt

Bone-stone. Photo: Kenton Hyatt

A three-turn labyrinth is a very simple structure. It simply means that the walker’s path through the labyrinth turns three times. A Cretan labyrinth is a little different than a classic Chartres labryinth, lacking the formal circular symmetry. It feels more organic, and has more or less the shape of a brain. It is claimed that each turn in the Cretan labyrinth activates a brain hemisphere in turn, right-left-right, a natural movement. The right brain has been over-priviliged in the last few decades to make up for how under-privileged it was for so many centuries in the West. In balance we use both – even when making art. Think about it.

Labyrinth-Medicine Wheel, from my journal

Labyrinth-Medicine Wheel, from my journal

This labyrinth has a medicine wheel at its center. It was easy to orient the medicine wheel with the labyrinth since our sweet house faces east and backs up to the west. I use the medicine wheel as a sort of prayer- or gratitude-machine. Each direction has a gift. For me, East is the place of creativity, new ideas, starting points, like spring. Its sound is a clear bell. South is the place of community and caring support, like the gourd that holds the creative idea, like fruition in summer or a campfire where people warm themselves together and talk story; the place where ideas are grown and nurtured, to the sound of a drum like a heartbeat. West, my old friend, is the place where the sun sets, and the part of the cycle where Demeter begins her lamentation, after the harvest when Earth has shed her bounty; it is the place of sacrifice, of rattling bones and sticks, the place of letting-go where I ask for courage to release what I no longer need, shed my illusions like a snake sloughing its skin. North is the place of winter rest, where nothing obstructs the clear view and the sky widens to the biggest picture, when in a place of reflection I can slow down enough to see it in its wholeness. East begins the cycle again. Then of course there are Father Sky above (whom I have asked to teach me how to love him, tired out as I am with the old, hardened, oppressive dogmas of father sky gods), and my favorite, Mother Earth, to whom I am always grateful.

Kenton Hyatt

Garden Labyrinth. Photo: Kenton Hyatt

Sometimes I walk the labyrinth in my imagination, and it gives me gifts as if I were walking it with my meat feet.

About two weeks after I returned from my vision quest in the early fall and the labyrinth was new, the earth in it fresh and raw, my mother called to say the Hospice people told her to let us know that Dad was going to die very soon. My sister and brothers and I gathered in those last few days to be with Dad and love him up. He was such a sweetheart: his pucker was the last thing to go. Even when he could barely open his eyes he could still kiss. After my sister and older brother left, Dad was worn out and became withdrawn and inert, only breathing. That Sunday night I was up during the night with his overnight care, giving him palliative medication every four hours.


During the vigil I lay down and decided to comfort myself by visualizing walking our labyrinth. It occurred to me to bring Dad along so I did. He was naked, looking as he did at the end, a big man very shrunken, his skin a very beautiful pale color and very soft, his arms and legs emaciated but not terribly bony. I was holding him, supporting him in walking the soft bare earth path and we were about halfway around it when very suddenly and unexpectedly he became a tall, strong, shining light body. The light body wasn’t wearing the features of the body I knew but was a beautiful, ageless, humanlike form that was the spirit that animated the body of my Dad. He walked with me the rest of the way to the center of the labyrinth and the medicine wheel. There, I released him and he rose and disappeared. As much as I loved my Dad I never imagined him in that form. For some reason, I had never before reflected on our karmic connection, but I have since then. He passed away the next night. I thank the spirits of the labyrinth and medicine wheel for a special gift of seeing the invisible with loving eyes.


With Dad in the labryinth

With Dad in the labryinth, from my journal

Posted by: daedala | November 20, 2008

reverse projection

It’s been a long time since I have posted. Not because life has not been mythic! Far from it. It has been difficult. I wrote a post some time ago (“Thoughts in a Car About Karma”) in which I speculated on the sadness of a woman I call “Kathleen.” About how her sadness might have been less if she had merely held the frame that the difficulties she had living with a beloved but profoundly disabled child were the central, karmic purpose of her life. Of course I was projecting! I knew it at the time. Now perhaps I know why.

My reflections on Kathleen came during a long drive Kenton and I made from Santa Fe to our home on Monterey Bay. It was the last trip we made before Kenton crashed with a chance, completely rogue staph infection in his spine. The path to recovery has been far longer than we had been given to believe by the doctors, at least at first. Perhaps we misinterpreted, but more than one told us to expect Kenton’s complete recovery, and soon. Six months later, we may be looking at a chronic condition, at least from the diagnosticians’ point of view. For them, it’s, sadly, untreatable; meaning, they can’t correct it with surgery, and there is no other allopathic treatment. The condition is “rare”. For Kenton, it’s pain, often severe, that does not ever go completely away. And being labeled “chronic” means, mostly, that we’re on our own.

The latest MRI report says the nerves are clumped inside his lower spine, probably as a result of both the infection and the surgery that excised parts of it. These nerves are clustered in a structure called the arachnoid (hence the diagnosis “suspicion of arachnoiditis”). Interesting, that it’s named after a spider, presumably because healthy, it looks like a web. It’s hidden very deep, within the middle layer of spinal mantle, unreachable.

We’ve gone from rejoicing in his seemingly fast recovery from the infection and the trauma of the surgery to awaiting signs of healing, then to coping with the lengthening recovery time, then to steeling our patience as it seemed to lengthen ever more, showing a barely discernable positive arc. We kept hearing it would all come right, but would take time. No one has said lately that we should expect Kenton to recover at all – and if we look at “arachnoiditis” on the internet, it’s a very negative proposition.

I don’t know how to feel about all this. We keep getting bumped into successive psychological cycles – first the relief and expectation; then the waiting; more recently being confronted with the possibility that this is what life has dealt us, for the rest of this time around. We still don’t believe that, and don’t want to, but maybe that’s what the literature describes as “denial”, the prelude to subsequent emotions like anger, resignation and finally accpetance? This is still all too new.

So, back to Kathleen, dear Kathleen, whom I never knew well, and who became the screen for my projection some months ago, as we drove westward, unwittingly, toward an event waiting to happen. So, what happens when I retract that instrument of projection and simply look at myself? Am I experiencing an invitation to apply the same examination to my own life, namely that what I’m doing now is exactly what I should be doing. Waiting, being present with Kenton, and not expecting more of myself, more of my life right now? Or, at least welcoming the rest as gravy.

Kenton manages his condition very well. He researches, he manages his medications, he pushes himself to move even when he’s aching. He does this at all times except those times when the pain blows through everything. I massage the places where the nerves, trying, we hope, to sort themselves out, cause the muscles to seize and cramp and bunch and ache. It works. This is such a blessing, not only because it helps him by calming the pain. It helps me. I don’t have to sit by passively and watch his suffering without being able to help.

There are other things too. We aren’t bringing in much money. When work doesn’t come in, we don’t work. Of course this is a terrible dilemma, but it also has a silver lining. We are able to stay close to each other. And, it is calling forth new kinds of creativity. We have to live by our wits to survive this catastrophe, we can’t be complacent. What if Kenton can’t travel and know for sure he will be able to stand up in a room when he gets there, for months, years, or ever? We are sure he will eventually get better, but we can’t know when. This is calling for very different thinking. That’s what is mythic about all of this – it’s not letting us be what we were.

So, Kathleen, dear, you’re off the hook. I knew it was funny business, all those months ago when I chose you for my projection screen. Thank you for being there, even if only in my imagination. And you see, I was right all along: you did something wonderful just by being who you were, nothing else. Who knew?

Posted by: daedala | July 27, 2008

spiral dance with the psychopomp

Night turned mythic for Kenton and me a little more than two years ago. We encountered a man coming out of the dark night with a knife, and we were both slashed.

One might think this often happens in a city like Atlanta, where we were visitors when this happened, in a place where it was foolish for us to be on foot at midnight. However, the police, the emergency services people, and the staff we encountered in both hospitals we visited that night, all, seemingly without exception in our memory, expressed shock, chagrin, and sorrow that this had happened to visitors to their city. They offered us profound apologies, as if they felt personally responsible. The friends we were visiting became our angels. The police called them and they immediately came to Grady Memorial, where we started out. They sat with us there, ferried us to Emory for emergency plastic surgery for Kenton, and cared for us afterwards. That’s another story, for another time.

In the moments we encountered our attacker, things happened so fast that I did not know I was cut until several minutes after it happened. Shock works that way. I was slashed across the four fingers of my right hand. The tendon under the last joint of my middle finger was cut, and the wounding was described as “defensive,” meaning that it was positioned such that I was warding off rather than dealing a blow. Kenton says that he saw my arm raised to the level of my throat. If I had not put my hand up, my throat might have been cut. The slasher cut Kenton’s face without regard to where the blade traveled, and his eye would have been sliced if his glasses hadn’t deflected the blade. So perhaps the instinctive, defensive posture saved my life. Perhaps I was never really in danger of losing my life. I have no way to ever know.

It was good to know that Kenton and I could both survive, and to claim our own stories from that night.

Part of my story, or I could say, my myth, involves the spiral dance I engaged in with our attacker, a black man whom we never could have identified in daylight, and who was therefore truly a shadowy presence. So, he became night itself taking mythic form. I remember turning as he rushed at us, and turning with him when he grabbed me. I then would have put my hand up, and spun off as I managed, without knowing how, to detach myself from his grasp.

There are two mythic images at work here — and probably scores more, but I’m not aware of those as yet, and this is MY myth, after all. There is an implacable presence, black and unidentifiable, black like the night it emerges from. And, there is a spiral.

Newgrange Barrow entrance stone -- image by Wikipedia user Nomadtales used with pernission

Newgrange Barrow entrance, photo by Wikipedia user Normaltales. Used with permission.

The spiral is an old image, possibly most familiar to many from the ancient Irish grave barrows. Their stone pavements are marked with spirals, and their passageways align with solstice movements. They are markers in time’s arrow and time’s cycle. In the months after the attack, I remembered I’d more than once had dreams in the years before about being led to the underworld, down a circular, spiraling staircase. The “leader” in these dreams—the psychopomp, the divinity who leads souls to the underworld at the moment of death—was a black woman. In fact, two black women were each the underworld conductor, in different dreams. (And in fact, the police personnel and many of the hospital staff, who see death every day and were so sympathetic, were also black people.)

The black women in my dreams, unlike our attacker, were not anonymous, they were women I knew from waking life. Each had been my boss, in a time before the dreams. Both are highly-educated (one with a Ph.D. from Harvard, one from Vanderbilt). They are high-level executives, both extremely capable, fascinating women in daylight reality. Dreams seem to enjoy making puns. So, these boss-women—my superiors—showing up in these dreams could be my unconscious giving me a glimpse of a “superior” archetype, namely a divinity of death and transition. The psychopomp.

The color of my psychopomps is highly significant to me. I am white. That my unconscious should present this image to me in black is not so surprising. The color can be said to be my opposite, as left is opposite to right. Or, maybe not—the left brain can get stuck in such categories. The right brain operates promiscuously, faithful only to the metaphorical power of the image itself, following in the footsteps of its nonlinear gait. The self-same archetype may present itself someone else in another color. As black is the nominal color of death in the culture I was raised in—the color of moonless midnight, the color of blindness—white in many cultures is the color of death, reminiscent of pus and decay. To many, whites are ghostly. Gweilo is the word many Chinese in North America give to Caucasians—one can overhear the term any day on the streets of Vancouver; historically and politically, it has been suggested, the term is atttributed because of the corpse-like color of the white skin of European colonialists.

So, for me, my nameless black attacker was, and is, a psychopomp. He led me very close to death, and my story is that I live to honor the dance in that liminal transition space. What has happened to Kenton and me more recently, on the anniversary of that encounter, is another chapter in the same book, another reminder to “pay attention!”

I offer my prayers and thanks to the psychomp, wherever he may be. His story is his own, but I can regard him with both compassion and gratitude in my story, my myth. May I learn the lessons I’ve been given to study.

Posted by: daedala | July 20, 2008

night turns mythic























from my Hephaistos dissertation journal, 2003 

“There’s a guy following us,” says Kenton. I don’t look back. We’re already walking fast along the boulevard. It’s about midnight, and no one else is around. Who knows why this guy is here, but there’s only one of him and two of us. And anyone can tell we’re in good shape from the way our feet connect solidly with the ground.

Kenton has not conveyed urgency. But we speed up. We’re getting close to the corner of the street that leads into our friends’ “transitional” Atlanta neighborhood. There are no shops here, just a closed-up auto mechanic’s garage fronted by cracked asphalt pavement with a few weeds poking up, making an open space at the street corner. On the corner across from that is the school property, fenced in, and deeply surrounded by tall trees, the buildings well back from the street, invisible. Across the street is a continuous chain-link fence and a blank concrete berm rising up to the elevated light rail MARTA tracks that run parallel. There are no lights and no cars.

We turn the corner, leaving the cement sidewalk for the street. As we turn, I can finally see out of the corner of my eye the figure of the man who has been following us. He’s running, and as he telescopes toward us he yells that he’s got a knife.

We have both swiveled like a gate on a hinge to face him. I notice that he has full cheeks, he’s stocky, maybe Kenton’s six-foot height. He wears dark clothes, and he’s black. Part of the night is gaining form and rushing at us. There is one thought in my mind, forming in slow motion: “This is it.”

Now things occur in rapid motion, a blur. The rushing man grabs me, by my daypack strap or my arm, I have no idea which, and we rotate centrifugally. His knife arm raised, he threatens Kenton that he is going to hurt me. I don’t know if I say it out loud, but I’m filled up with NO, like a donkey straining against a bridle. I back up and twist and, breaking free, I have the sense that I have forced him to let go out of sheer force of will.

In dreams, I’ve tried to scream and couldn’t make a sound. Not so now. I’m screaming with intent, and I can hear Kenton screaming too, trying to raise attention, from someone, somewhere in the houses nearby. Straining, I’m trying to push out all the sound I can, alternating the loudest scream I can make with “Help!” Scream-Help! Scream-Help! Scream-Help! The best thing to do is run, to get out of the way. I know it will be best for Kenton, who is somewhere behind me, with the man between us, not to have to worry about where I am now. For a moment it’s back to slow motion as I struggle to run—it shouldn’t feel this slow. Fifty yards down the street, I look back, and see Kenton, his back on the pavement, knees and arms raised, to protect himself, the dark man leaning over him. I have the fleeting thought that that could be the last time I see him alive. I stop thinking, turn my head and keep running, screaming for help.

The school property on my left is endless. The first house on the right has lights on but I know from passing it this morning that it has a lock-box on it—for sale, empty. It’s only now that I start to feel something like panic. The next house is dark, but with a porch light on. I consciously register this light only as I bang on the door, still screaming, and I begin to see that I am bloodying the glass with blossoms of vermilion. I did not know I was cut.

In graduate school I was attracted to write my disseration on the Greek blacksmith god, Hephaistos. The wounded god of fire chose me, I felt, rather than the other way around. I didn’t even know his name before I came to study myth and depth psychology. Kenton said, “Be careful who you invite home!” Hephaistos and all blacksmith gods image a profoundly ambivalent archetype. They are gods of both hot chaos and cool order, intimate with the white-hot flow of molten iron as well as its rigidity when cold.  Poets of Ogun, Hephaistos’s African brother god, who is still actively worshipped in the African diaspora orisa religions, priase the god with both affection and healthy fear. In Yoruba-land, Ogun is the god of metal, accidents, technology, cutting, circumcision, medicine scars and tribal marks. Ogun’s marks make humans know who we are. We and others can read our landmarks of scars, identify our corpses as belonging to this tribe or that.

After what seems like an eternity, lights go on in the house as I continue to hammer the bloody door. A young man opens it, two women peering around from behind him to see who is there. They take me into the house and after I croak out what is happening, the young man calls the police. One of the women produces a towel for me to wrap my hand in, and wants me to sit down. I do, on the hardwood floor, trying to avoid bleeding on the carpet in the center of the room. I try to explain more, and am now feeling intense anxiety about Kenton. The young man goes out onto the porch to see, a neighbor is arriving from across the street, and Kenton lopes into the yard. The people pull both of us back into the house and we sink against the wall and onto the floor side by side. The neighbor, seeing that Kenton’s hand is badly gashed, takes off his shirt and crouches to stanch the blood until the ambulance arrives. These people are angels. Kenton seems barely aware of the tremendous gash in his face. The sliced skin pouches open. I don’t want to him to see what this looks like. My hand is not as bad. I can simply hold it up, wrapped in a towel, to control the bleeding. I don’t want to look at it. We are both artists, both right-handed, and we have both been slashed in the right hand.

Kenton thinks the man was wielding a box cutter. That would explain the cleanness of the slash on his face, which curves upward from his jaw to where his glasses stopped it entering his eye. Although the cut in his hand was so long and deep that the plastic surgeon put his entire finger into it up to the first joint to probe for anything that would injure him once it was sewed, no tendons were involved, and very little nerve damage. One of my finger tendons was cut, and I had to have surgery to reattach it. I wore a cast for twelve weeks and underwent physical therapy. My finger is crooked now, but works, and it’s strong. Kenton’s scar looks like a duelling scar, that ladies from two-centuries ago Vienna might have swooned over, deliciously. Some people think it’s rather elegant.

We both have scars, the visible traces of wounds from the event. I brought home the fiery gods of blades and fateful injury. We are marked, and have a different feeling about the archetype of the wounded maker gods. The most important thing has been that the story is ours. Sometime during the night that we waited in the emergency hospital room for the hot-shit surgeon to show up and do his magic with more metal implements, Kenton reminded me that we had to decide how we would re-myth ourselves—as victims or as something else. From that moment, neither of us has ever looked back to the victim option. We realize too that our story is powerful. Many friends expressed anger and hatred for the man who attacked us, and there are lots of explanations for why he might have done it. We could not identify him, and the police couldn’t find him, at least not that time. They all expressed real regret and sorrow that something like this should happen to visitors to their city. But we know that the story is ours. The man who attacked us has his own. We don’t know what it is, and we don’t need to.

And in more recent events, the archetype has made its presence felt. Lest we forget: we have not come to the end of this story, yet.

Posted by: daedala | June 21, 2008

sore-foot smarty-daemon

Being a post-Jungian quasi-Hillmaniac, I believe in daemons. The energies that visit in so many ways: dreams, hypnagogic events, hallucinations, waking events, random thoughts, synchronicities.

Thus a summer solstice dream: During a work meeting at a conference center I somehow encounter a little boy about 8 years old. There is something wrong with him, I don’t remember what, but my impression of him is that he is brilliant and calm, very mature for his age. An old soul. Then, I visit him at a clinic or hospital where he is lying in bed. The room is also a work room, and he has a computer and things he can use to work and communicate with people. His feet hurt him a lot, and he may not want them to be touched, though when a nurse comes to adjust the sheets he is standing with me, waiting. So, it’s not that he can’t stand and walk. I don’t know what his problem is. He tells me some of his ideas, and that no one will listen to him. When he calls people they are interested and intrigued, but when they find out how young he is, they won’t talk with him. I tell him that when he’s 17 he’ll have created amazing entrepreneurial things, and to keep going. I’m coaching him a bit. As a gift, he gives me a small colored drawing, a plan of some of his ideas. I feel grateful. I say goodbye and leave the room.

Although I have forgotten details, as with most dreams, I nevertheless awake with the feeling that this one is significant. I have encountered an inner child. (I would probably like the idea of “inner child” more if 1) if it were not a misunderstood, therefore trivialized and hackneyed idea or, 2) if I encountered mine more often!)

I’m intrigued that there is a problem with his feet, which, along with meeting a child since I dream so few, is also why the dream seems so significant in the first place. Lots of mythic figures limp, and it is symbolic of magical gifts or the ability to foresee. The gifts are usually attained through painful, sometimes devasting trials. Think Oedipus, who in the end attains the often unenviable ability to see things for what they are. Hephaistos, called the “wise one,” the crafty master blacksmith god who makes Zeus’s thunderbolts, has his feet on backwards both because he was clubfooted from birth and because Zeus tossed him off Olympus (for calling out things as they are; after that he becomes more choosy about when and how to express what he knows, and finds more creative ways to draw attention). Hermes, the trickster god and patron of thieves and skillful liars and conveyer of messages between worlds, has winged feet. As a precocious newborn, he popped out already scheming how to get the recognition of his father Zeus and a seat at the big table in Olympus. Apollo is very jealous of his cattle, so when they turn up missing he’s bound to raise a ruckus with Zeus. Hermes has stolen them, making them walk backward, as he does himself, covering the footprints so he can later innocently recover them and get plenty of attention.

On hearing this dream, Kenton tells me I’m smart but I don’t have “feet,” meaning a vehicle to get out there. People are interested in my ideas, but can’t take them anywhere. The ideas have to be more developed and matured, the plans, perhaps, more schematic. In short, people have a hard time following my thinking. This is a problem!

I notice the numbers 8 and 17 (the latter is numerologically summable to 8). The smarty-daemon is surely telling me that this is the year, and season, to grow and mature some ideas for harvest. And my smarty-daemon is telling me to be crafty about it. Come back, smarty-daemon, and tell me how!

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